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Healing hearts: Holy Cross nursing in times of war and peace

posted in: Health care, History
This portion of a larger illustration represents the Sisters of the Holy Cross nursing the ill and wounded of both the North and the South in the Civil War. Boarding a naval hospital ship in 1862, they became the forerunners of today’s U.S. Navy Nurse Corps.

Nursing wounded and maimed soldiers in wartime was far from the minds of the first Holy Cross sisters who journeyed to Indiana from France in 1843. In fact, nursing wasn’t even a profession. Rather, the four young women knew they were to perform domestic duties for the priests and brothers at the fledgling University of Notre Dame, staff an infirmary for the boys, and “perhaps open a school” for young girls. And for close to 20 years, these labors occupied their waking hours.

Then, one October night, a pounding at the door of the motherhouse roused the sisters from sleep. It was Father Sorin from Notre Dame bearing a lantern and a message. The Indiana governor had asked that he rally 12 sisters to care for soldiers wounded on Civil War battlefields in Illinois and Kentucky. It is said that all of the sisters volunteered. Six were chosen to leave at first light, with another six to come later.

What awaited them were conditions of nightmarish proportion—men writhing in excruciating pain, blood-splattered walls, too many wounded and too few to care for them. While they may have been appalled at first, the sisters did not shirk. They dried their tears, pinned up their habits, and set to work. In time, they transformed what were often dilapidated warehouses into hospitals worthy of praise. The facility in Mound City, Illinois, in fact, was said to have the reputation as “the best military hospital in the United States.”

Up through the close of the war, and beyond, these sisters and those who followed helped craft the profession of nursing almost from nothing. They insisted on proper staffing, sterile conditions, and a sufficient quantity of supplies and equipment. They also set the standard for character and conduct.

In their endeavors, the sisters answered the charge of their founder, Blessed Basil Anthony Moreau, who in 1848 wrote: “Never before have there been more powerful motives for fervor in the service of God…. Shall we fail to answer the call? No! On the contrary, I trust that every one of you will remain at (your) post of duty and not be discouraged by the difficulties of our times.”

St. Joseph’s Hospital in South Bend, Indiana, founded in 1882, was one of several facilities the Sisters established and staffed across the many decades since 1867.

Heeding calls near and far

Whether it was a governor asking sisters to care for soldiers fresh from the battlefield, railroad managers requesting a hospital for their workers in the frontiers of the West, a pastor in New Mexico hoping for a tuberculosis sanitorium, or other congregations seeking assistance in serving the health needs of migrants during peak crop season, Holy Cross sisters have responded.

Sometimes the call has come from within their own hearts, as it did when two sisters in 1990 ventured to the poverty pockets of Southern Maryland, knocking on doors, discerning needs, and eventually building a free health clinic that carries on today.

Globally, too, Holy Cross sisters have braved devastating conditions. In the 1970s, Catholic Relief Services sounded the call for medical/health care assistance in Thailand, where thousands of Cambodian refugees were fleeing to escape the brutal Khmer Rouge regime ravaging their country. Holy Cross sisters responded. In one camp alone, 60,000 refugees crowded into one square mile.

Sisters have always bravely ventured into the unknown, finding strength and inspiration in the words of their founder, in Scripture—“Whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you do for me”—and in their own sense of the rightness of serving others.

Sister M. Rose Virginia (Burt), CSC, tends to a child in an ER.

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go, Lord, if you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

Dan Schutte

The sisters didn’t seek recognition for their works, but accolades came anyway. During the Spanish-American War, Holy Cross sisters ministered in a typhoid ward, which was merely a tent in an army camp, toiling for 16 hours every day. Records note that an officer, speaking of the various orders of congregations at the camp, told a general that “one sister was worth 200 men nurses … . The work was hard, even disgusting, if one allowed nature to speak, but all worked willingly.”

Often, the sisters had to be creative in finding ways to serve others and sustain their ministries. How to keep a new hospital serving miners and smelt workers financially viable in the late 19th century? Create a health plan, in which participants pay $1 per month while in good health, then receive free hospitalization when in need. How to continue serving the health needs of a community after relinquishing a hospital ministry in the 1990s? Create the promotora (health promoter) program, an innovative response to the varied needs of uninsured families that employs bilingual and bicultural staff and works in collaboration with low-income health clinics.

Through the decades, Sisters of the Holy Cross also opened schools of nursing to teach succeeding generations not only the clinical and administrative aspects of the profession, but also the spiritual. At the Holy Cross School of Nursing in South Bend, Indiana, they upheld this philosophy for their student-nurses: “The ideal of nursing rests in the precepts of Christ: in ministering to the mental and bodily needs of His poor, sick and suffering, we minister to Him.”

Sister Renu Teresa Rozario, CSC, attends to patients at the Holy Cross Health Education Center in Kulaura, Bangladesh. The center serves 6,500 people annually with health education and medication.  (photo taken pre-pandemic)

Echoes into the future

Over the course of a century and a half, the Sisters of the Holy Cross have built nearly two dozen hospitals, several schools of nursing, and numerous health clinics that brought hope and healing to people in need. For many of these facilities, the sisters followed their philosophy of the “relaxed grasp,” letting go of a ministry when circumstances dictated, so that others could carry on the work they had founded.

Today, the sisters’ ministries of healing take place not so much in hospitals and nursing schools, but rather closer to the heart of their communities, meeting people where they are — on the street, in churches and in homes — all across the globe.

Sister Jacinta Mueni Munyao, CSC, administers a vaccine to a young boy at the Kyembogo Holy Cross Health Centre in Kirinda, Uganda, which provides outpatient, maternity and postnatal care, as well as outreach services in the adjacent villages. (photo taken pre-pandemic)

In Kulaura, Bangladesh, the Holy Cross Health Education Center gives people the tools and knowledge needed to take better care of themselves and their families. In South Bend, Indiana, a sister operates an equine-assisted therapy program for individuals with special needs. A prison ministry in Lima, Peru, provides basic health services for incarcerated women and their children. The Kyembogo Health Centre in Kirinda, Uganda, serves a wide remote region where many people live in poverty. And in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2021, two sister-nurses came out of retirement to administer COVID-19 vaccinations at the local hospital.

One knock on a door in the middle of the night, 160 years ago, echoes from century to century to century and will, with faith and Providence, continue to be answered as long as people are in need.